Life

What Pee-wee Herman’s Rise, Fall, And Comeback Taught Me About Heroes

With great affection, my father often tells a story about my younger brother and me running around in the front yard. There’s also a slight hint of annoyance whenever he tells it, but it’s the kind of irritation that parents with young children are allowed. Especially when their kids’ favorite television program showcases the most random, sing-song ideas of a bow tie-wearing man-child.

“You two used to run around the yard and sing that damn thing over and over again,” he laughs over the phone. In the background, my mother emits an audible sigh as he continues: “‘Connect the dots, la la la-la! Connect the dots, la la la-la!‘ All the damn time.”

Anyone who grew up with their faces glued to a television set on Saturday mornings in the late ’80s and early ’90s knows the tune without clicking on the link above. It comes from Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the utterly ridiculous children’s show that featured comedian Paul Reubens’ iconic Pee-wee Herman character for five seasons. Like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood before, during, and after it, Playhouse introduced kids to a variety of characters who all lived in or near a specific community. For Rogers, these were the residents of his own typically suburban neighborhood and those who lived in the land of Make-Believe. For Pee-wee, it was a playhouse on top of a weird claymation mountain that looked like it’d been designed by artists and builders who were dropping acid more than drinking coffee.

But I was just a kid, so I didn’t think anything was wrong with a talking chair named Chairry with big googly eyes and movable arms with which she’d tickle Pee-wee regularly. Nor did I think too much about a globe named Globey whose penchant for map puns was just above my intelligence at the time. Pee-wee’s Playhouse was a big, magical world of multi-colored, fast-paced things that engaged me on a level little else could. I was a weird, loner of a kid, so when I saw this guy on television whose style of dress mirrored my own, I couldn’t help but feel some sort of camaraderie with him. Even if he was just a fictional character developed by an actor, Pee-wee was more real to me then than the park across the street whose bullies weren’t too fond of my bow ties.

Recently, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday star Stephanie Beatriz told me that working with Reubens on the new Netflix film “felt like I was coming back to meet an old friend, and we just picked up where we left off.” Because, she continued, like so many of us who grew up with Pee-wee, “he was something different.” I felt the same way when Playhouse was added to the streaming service in 2014. Both it and the 1985 film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure were there for the bingeing, and I relished the opportunity to watch it all again.

My reluctance is best explained by an offhand joke my father made during our conversation. He explained that, while mom thought Playhouse just didn’t make any sense, he saw value in our watching it because it was educational. That and, along with Pee-wee’s goofy delivery, it reminded him of shows he’d watched as a kid, like Captain Kangaroo and anything starring Soupy Sales. However, his support dwindled in 1991 when Reubens was arrested for exposing himself at an adult theater in Sarasota, Fla. on July 26, 1991. Or as my dad joked, he’d gone to jail for competing in “elbow aerobics.”

I was only 6 years old when news of Reubens’ arrest and the resulting scandals (both the alleged attempted bribery and the deputy-provided bail money), and I’m pretty sure my father had made the same (or a similar) joke at the time. Hence I didn’t quite understand what all the fuss was about. All I knew was that Playhouse was no longer on television, and that something else had taken its place during the bout of Saturday morning cartoons I regularly enjoyed.

Dad’s joke notwithstanding, my parents never went out of their way to disparage Pee-wee. They knew how important the character was to me. Not only did I own and often wear a grey glen plaid suit and bow-ties, I also possessed a pull-string talking Pee-wee doll. (Hearing a chorus of “ha ha,” “heh heh heh” and “I know you are but what am I?” in our house was an all-too common occurrence.) Tearing down the idols and dreams of kids isn’t exactly the best technique for parents and caregivers, so despite the media’s insistence on accomplishing these goals, my parents chose not to participate. They also rightfully shielded me from much of what was being said — not that I understood any of it.

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